IBG: And on to Air Force

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We’re back with another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. If you’ve missed the last few, you’ve missed me comparing the Irish quarterbacking depth chart to TV’s leading ladies, Little Mac’s journey to beat Iron Mike, and other answers to questions that I’ve retro-fit to keep this blog family friendly and  my job safe.

This week’s questions are presented by the godfather of the IBG, the Subway Domer himself. I’ll do my best not to step in any bear-traps he’s left for me, and get us ready for the pregame six pack, coming sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Alright, let’s get to the questions:

1. So, uh, the defense has looked pretty good. Give me a stat that most exemplifies what this defense is all about. Are we really as good as we think, or are we inflating the results?

Wait — I feel like I’ve done this multiple times. (Here and here.) The Irish running defense is good. Just ask Troy Calhoun.

““They are exceptional,” Calhoun said earlier this week. “Nobody’s been able to run the ball on them. Flat out, have not.”

Here’s the think with this Irish defense. It isn’t set up to dominate statistically, but rather to win games. When defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was asked about trying to generate more turnovers, he hinted at the fact that this defense was good enough not to need to engineer results.

“It seems like it should be the case every week, ‘Get turnovers, get turnovers’. Well, yes and no,” Diaco said. “There’s a particular style of calls that create more turnovers, and whether that will be functional to the team winning or not, you have to see. There is definitely a style of play that is more disruptive, but it could also end up being feast or famine.”

If you’re looking for something that exemplifies how good this Irish defense is, just consider that two years after Jon Tenuta thought he needed to bring blitz pressure on practically every down to keep the defense from imploding, the coaching staff thinks they’ve got a system and personnel good enough to not risk things by even bringing blitzes.

2. What concerns you the most about Air Force? How will ND be able to ease your fear?

The Falcons’ offense. While I just got done praising Diaco for his ability to stay committed to the foundation of the defense, the commitment to reading and reacting against Air Force could spell doom — Navy style, 2010.

Tim Jefferson and the Air Force offense is incredibly multiple. And Calhoun is a pretty incredible coach for Air Force to have on the sidelines. This guy was an NFL offensive coordinator, coming up under Mike Shanahan in Denver and then coordinating Gary Kubiak‘s offense in Houston. That’s pretty impressive.

As for easing my fear? Well — I’ll be just fine if I see the Irish defensive front dominating Air Force’s offensive line, blowing up the inside option game and forcing the Falcons to work the pitch and throw the ball. As for regular Irish fans? I don’t think there’s any ability to ease their fears. It’ll be white-knuckled panic until the final whistle, and once that happens, most likely a lot of complaints that it wasn’t a truly dominant victory.

3. You’re the long snapper. You get into a bit of a fracas on the field and break your hand… just how dumb are you feeling right now?

Like 2+2=5 dumb.

There is really nothing quite like getting dressed down by a coach for doing something stupid and undisciplined. I can vividly remember all the high-decibel lectures all the way back to grade school and through college and your tail stays pretty firmly tucked between your legs for a few days.

If Cowart isn’t able to snap because he decided to throw a right hook into a football helmet, well — he’ll be feeling pretty low for quite some time.

4. FYI: Tommy Rees will have 2 more years of eligibility after this year. How is Notre Dame’s QB situation going to shake out over the next couple of years?

I guess this is the million dollar question. Is Rees Matt LoVecchio or… well — that’s really the question. Assuming Rees continues to get better and start for the next two years, it could be Rees sitting at the top of Notre Dame’s passing records.  something that reminds me of the fact that Autry Denson is sitting atop Notre Dame’s rushing record books.

I’m not fully comfortable making assumptions, but you’ve got to think that Dayne Crist might choose to explore other options after this season. That’ll leave Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson to battle with Rees (and potentially Luke Massa), and that three-way race would almost have to favor Rees if he continues to handle his business throughout the second half of the season.

Good question and an admittedly bad answer. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

5. Subway Domer has always championed a “People’s Champion” if you will. This year, however, I just couldn’t make the call before the season began. We dig great hair, tattoos, and at least some playing time.  Who would you name as the Subway Domer People’s Champ? Keep in mind, at no point in time were guys like Te’o or Floyd eligible and that should help guide you.

I’m not sure that I completely understand the question, but that’s never stopped me before. People’s champion? I’ll throw out some nominees:

Jonas Gray, RB — It’s not a coincidence that after Gray dominated Screech in stand-up comedy, his confidence and running game exploded.

Trevor Robinson, RG — He’s quoted Billy Madison in an official UND.com video. Even though he said Entourage was his favorite TV show, he’s still a People’s Champ candidate for dropping a “Business Ethics” line.

Robert Blanton, CB — After waiting his turn to start, Blanton has brought some serious swagger to the field corner position. He’s a talker on the field and keeps it clean off. My kind of guy.

I’ll let you choose from there.

6. OK, talk to me about Saturday. Give me:

  • 2 reasons we lose — Turnovers and Special Teams.
  • 2 reasons we win — Better Talent and Air Force’s defense.
  • Any prediction you might have for the game — They will serve hot dogs in the press box.

7. I love hardware. There is no hardware on sale this week… bummer. Give me your thoughts on Notre Dame’s “rivalry trophy” situation, and would you change anything about it?

When the players don’t even known about some of the rivalry trophies, I think we’ve already said enough about their importance.

I’m a huge fan of rivalry games — and trophies like the Little Brown Jug, Floyd of Rosedale, and Paul Bunyon’s Axe are just awesome. (Can you tell I’m from Minnesota?) But maybe it’s because Notre Dame plays for shillelaghs, that it’s tough to get too excited about it.

But really, it’s Notre Dame. You really don’t need trophies to get up for that game. So what would I change? I’m not sure anything, but I agree with what I think you’re asking — there’s a way to probably do more with them.

BONUS: If the 4 Notre Dame scholarship quarterbacks could be quantified as a present or former country in the world; who they be?

I think my head is going to explode trying to even consider this question. If anybody here wants to take a stab at it, do so in the comments.

 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.